As the B.C. government gave the green light to complete a controversial hydroelectric dam, Premier John Horgan signalled support for electrification to deliver deep decarbonization in order to achieve the province’s climate targets.
On Monday, the New Democrat government leader announced the “difficult decision” to move ahead with construction of the Site C dam, which has prompted widespread opposition over the flooding of agricultural land and potential negative impacts on First Nations communities.
But the renewed focus on decarbonization is significant because the previous government had described the project as necessary to power the now-fledgling liquefied natural gas industry in the province. Until this week, while energy experts had suggested vast amounts of new clean electricity would be needed to electrify sectors that currently depend on combustion of fossil fuels, few BC politicians had publicly pitched the hydro dam as a clean energy project.
In an address to reporters explaining the decision, Horgan focused on the cost of cancelling the project, its impact on ratepayers and the threat of termination posed to other public spending priorities. But he also said that the electricity generated by the dam will help both BC and the rest of the country decarbonize its economy. That the government would attempt to recast the project as a way to support electrification of transport, heating and industry was hinted last week when deputy energy minister, Dave Nikolejsin, told a conference of Clean Energy BC that deep decarbonization would likely require the power produced by the equivalent of nine Site Cs by 2050.
Nikolejsin’s numbers counter a BC Utillities Commission public consultation, which suggested that the required magnitude and timing of increased electricity demand to meet climate targets was still uncertain. But in the days before the decision, a parade of climate and energy experts also provided advice to cabinet on what it would take to meet climate change mitigation commitments.
Other energy experts have suggested that while the magnitude and timing is known, this does not mean that hydroelectricity is the only way to service this need.
The Vancouver Sun is also reporting that the dam will feature prominently in the government’s alternative energy strategy, due to be published next year. The premier also said that BC Hydro is to launch a program to support development of First Nations-led, small-scale renewable energy projects.
Now that the BC government has made its decision, climate watchers will be keeping an eye on the details of the expected alternative energy strategy and details of how electrification will be rolled out. There remain some potential legal hurdles to completion of the dam as well. Immediately following the premier’s public address, two First Nations, the West Moberly First Nations and the Prophet River First Nation, announced they are to seek an injunction to halt construction of the dam.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.